Sally Sheklow

SallyWarming Up

My mother hated that I was a lesbian. Mom wanted the kind of happiness for me that she had found with Dad and she couldn’t conceive of me finding it with a woman. “You got the last good man,” I used to tell her, a point she couldn’t argue.

None of my boyfriends had been hot prospects. There was Tony, who spent half of our high school romance away in Juvenile Detention. And Roger, who had a habit of hitting me. Roger was Jewish, though, so Mom held out hope.

Until the day she died, Mom carried a snapshot of me in her wallet — taken years after I’d come out as a lesbian — with a male friend (Jewish, of course) giving me a birthday kiss on the cheek. I finally gave up trying to get her to replace that picture with the one of me driving a tractor or competing in a Kung Fu tournament or, god forbid, kissing a girlfriend.

Sally and friend

My mom was tall, five foot ten, and had big hands. She indulged herself in professional manicures and drank Knox gelatin to keep her long nails strong and beautiful. Her hands showed off her wedding band, engagement ring and a gold watch that had been her mother’s. Other than that, she didn’t wear jewelry. Her wardrobe was functional. If she had to change out of her swim suit, she preferred slacks and sandals over dresses and heels. She kept her soft, naturally wavy hair cropped short with her own pair of barber’s scissors. My utilitarian style and dyke haircuts somehow made sense to her. It was my being a lesbian that gave her conniptions.

Mom didn’t mention the PFLAG literature I left on her coffee table whenever I visited. I wished she would have talked to some moms who had found a way past their shame and disgust about their daughters’ lesbianism. “It’s like mating with an ape,” Mom told me. I began calling my girlfriend My Little Monkey.

Sally and her momWhen Enid and I had been together for two years we traveled to my childhood home to meet my parents. Mom perked up to learn that not only was this girl Jewish, but that her parents had a business. They owned a real delicatessen. This my mother, the businesswoman, could relate to. Enid instantly jumped up Mom’s judgment scale to near-human status.

As far as Mom was concerned, two girls sharing the bedroom was a normal arrangement, so we lucked out. If you can call two amply rounded adults squeezing between the wall and the edge of my old single bed “lucking out.” Mom had intended for one of us to sleep on the roll-away but I wanted closeness. And I got it. We fit fine if we both lay on our sides, synchronized our breathing and held on to each other like boa constrictors.

Dad, who wasn’t troubled by my orientation, was turning seventy-five and Mom was preparing a big birthday dinner. She asked me to climb onto the dining room table to tie some balloons to the overhead light fixture, which she liked to call a chandelier. I stood barefoot on the mauve painted table. Paint was our family business. When you own a paint store it is impossible to leave anything natural wood. This was probably the fourth or fifth color for their teak dining room set. The high gloss enamel felt slick and cool against my feet. The narcotic aroma of roasting brisket hovered thickly up here near the ceiling. Mom cupped her large hands around Enid’s pudgy arms and scooted her closer to the table. “Stand here, so if Sally falls she’ll have something soft to land on.” We were making progress.

Mom did warm up to Enid, eventually. I remember the day she ended one of our phone calls with “Give our love to Enid.” That was huge. I think she saw that I was finding the same happiness she and my dad enjoyed for nearly fifty years.

I wish they’d lived long enough to dance at our wedding. Mom and Dad died about three years apart, typical of long time couples. I like to think that given a few more years, Mom would have become less judgmental and that she would have been proud of my accomplishments. But my worst pangs of grief come in knowing my parents weren’t around long enough to witness my growing acceptance and appreciation of them. In some ways, though, it’s oddly liberating not to be trying to win my mom’s approval anymore. I’ve found the happiness she wanted for me and our dining table is still natural wood.

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